That latter scenario is where I found myself last week. It was an implosion of magnificent proportion, preceded by one of my more impressive climbing efforts. Not many miles down the hot, dusty trail, the curtain on my month of overdoing everything on the bike came down and my legs went on strike. Unfortunately, that left me barely 500' up a 5000' climb with nothing in sight except for two other idiots facing a strangely similar conundrum.
How the heck did this stupidity come about? It was purely our own doing. Aaron Gulley, Scott Morris, and I had all put in big, tough miles on the Arizona Trail just a scant few weeks before. Then I showed up for a few shorter XC events and had tired legs that somehow churned out some strong rides. With the fitness train chugging along with plenty of track left in sight, I decided to time trial the 250-mile Coconino/Cocomingobob/Cocopai Loop (its actual name remains contentious).
The Coconino Loop (from bikepacking.net)
My thought was to do this under Supermoon, but after exchanging a few emails with Scott and Aaron, we settled on a Thursday morning start so all of us could give it a go. Scott helped put the route together and has won the 4-day stage race held on the loop. Aaron holds the through-ride record. I had never ridden it, but I've stared at many of the major topographic features along the route every morning on my ride down the hill into town.
We all realized that we were tired, but why not try to squeeze out one more big ride before taking some time to recover? Thinking back after the fact, I realized that every time I've tried to do this, I've failed. Miserably. I think we all suffer from the problem that it's tough to know when to say when (and actually say when). Biking is just too much fun to exercise that much common-sensical restraint.
At 6:05 am, the three of us set off from downtown Sedona and almost immediately dove into techy singletrack. The air was cool, trails deserted, and we cruised at a brisk pace. The red rocks quickly disappeared behind us, giving way to the exhausting sandy descent toward the Verde River. Flowers of all colors stared blankly as we passed, but we were too focused on not being defeated by the soft sand to admire the flora.
Aaron, Scott, and I looking naively confident
A quick stop at a gas station left us heavily laden with filled bottles and bladders as we began the 5000' climb up Mingus Mountain. The ice cream sandwich melting in my hand as we left town was the last thing that would descend easily into my stomach for the rest of the day. The climb turned to dirt, kicked skyward, and I picked up the pace. My recent foray into riding fast for just a few hours, combined with the intense heat of the late morning sun, clouded my judgment as I rode away from Aaron and Scott. My legs felt great, so I cranked out a steady pace all the way to the route transition to mostly hike-a-bike up the cliffs at the top of the mountain.
Somehow I reached the top in a bit over two hours. That was my undoing. My legs still felt good, but they were deceiving me. Over the next few hours, they rapidly degraded into a very tired state, my entire body became encrusted in salt crystallizing out of my sweat, and my stomach went south. I stopped for a few minutes at the Verde River to refill on water, but my legs felt even worse when I continued.
A whirlwind of pain was on its way to our legs
The route climbed steadily for many miles past the river, climbing to the top of the Mogollon Rim. The sun baked the road, and there was nowhere to hide from it. After crawling up the lower part of the climb, I stopped along the road and sat back against a rusted oil drum and contemplated as I watched my leg muscles quivering precariously on the verge of cramping.
The first collapse
Before long, Scott and Aaron rounded the bend below and gradually climbed toward me. Neither looked good as they rode past. I joined them, not saying too much. Aaron was battling bad cramps. Scott's legs were nowhere to be seen. As the track steepened, we slowed and eventually sputtered to a stop. My legs had started cramping, and I had zero energy since I had not been able to eat much. We all collapsed to the ground in the shade of a bushy juniper, our bodies and bikes scattered across the road.
The idea of getting a motel room in Williams was mentioned at that point. None of us had packed bivy gear, hoping to push straight through the night. We all seemed to recognize the sorry states of our bodies. At the next collapse-in-the-middle-of-the-road break, the idea of bailing on the "race" was raised. It sounded reasonable. I had to be back home the following evening since my parents were arriving for a visit, so I had limited time to cover the 250 miles. It was also at this point that the comedy of the situation became evident. Lucky for us, laughter helps soften misery.
At the third collapse-in-the-middle-of-the-road break, simply making it to Williams was seeming more and more daunting. We nixed the extra 1000' climb over Bill Williams Mountain and decided to just try to make it to town. I've bonked before. I've run out of steam many times. But this time my body was on the brink of refusing to function! I think I've only ever reached that point on one other occasion when I was so exhausted that I was unable to even walk up a steep hill.
By this time there was nothing to do but joke...
... especially when Aaron's legs cramped (photo by Scott Morris)
And we did, sometime after the sun set. A greasy fast food meal was glorious. The motel room was fantastic. The continental breakfast the following morning was an appropriate prelude to the incredible meal we got at a restaurant a few blocks up the street. By 10 am, we were finally rolling east. The pace was slow and surprisingly difficult, but after a few hours, my legs came around and started to feel mediocre. We stuck to the route until near Flagstaff, enjoying the sections of singletrack and each others' company before taking pavement back down to Sedona. Strangely, the three of us have raced together quite a bit, but we've done virtually no relaxing riding with one another, so it was fun to share stories and experiences.
An hour into day two and no one was smiling
But some rocky singletrack brought out Scott's smile...
... and sliced yet another sidewall on Aaron's bike
Days like these really serve as a much-needed reminder to me for how enjoyable it is to move at an easy pace and enjoy the little things. Stop and take in the views, but not for 30 seconds. Maybe five or ten minutes. Set your bike down and recline in the shade, but not for a minute or two. Maybe ten or fifteen. When exhausted, collapse in the road for as long as you need. Sleep all night until your body is ready to rise, not until your alarm clock sounds.
Climbing through tornado damage on Wing Mountain
The last bit of trail on our 2-day ride
Many of my adventures, on or off the bike, involve covering big miles, often within very rigid time constraints. Days are long. Nights are short. While this is often necessary to maximize the ground covered, it leaves little time for relaxation along the way. I'm sure I'll continue to push my limits with challenges for years to come, but I think I'll have to make more time for slower-paced endeavors.
Enjoying the shade (photo by Aaron Gulley)